Chapter 21:

A Wistful March

Chained Regalia

I tried my best to calm my breathing—or, rather, to calm my mind. The unease I’d felt since last night hadn’t waned; if anything, it’d gotten worse. Everyone insisted it would be fine, and that I was ready, but I had a hard time believing it. As usual, I lacked a single ounce of confidence in myself.

If nothing else, at least I could finally relax my death grip on the saddle. We’d recently hit a mountain pass, and although the terrain wasn’t necessarily treacherous, our horses slowed their gait somewhat to accommodate the rocky, slightly uneven passage.

It wasn’t as if they’d been going all that fast before, either, but as a completely inexperienced rider, I couldn’t help but be overly cautious and hold on as tight as I could. To accommodate this lack of familiarity, Lucia and I rode double, with her sitting in front to control the reins. That meant my only responsibility was to not lose balance, a task easier said than done in these conditions.

What was really throwing me off (figuratively) was my (literal) lack of weight—magically induced, of course. It was standard practice in this world, apparently, to have a weight-reduction spell cast on oneself before riding in order to ease the burden on the horse, and it was also what made double riding over a long distance like this at all feasible.

I understood its value, but I still hated the feeling of being affected by the spell. It felt as if the slightest puff of wind would send me flying, and even walking on my own two feet felt off-putting. It made my anxiety-induced headache all that much worse.

At least I’m not as bad as Selina, though.

Like Lucia and I, our traveling companions shared a horse, although with less apparent justification for doing so. Maybe Selina, like me, felt uncomfortable from the spell, or maybe riding gave her some kind of motion sickness. Whatever the reason, she’d tightly wrapped her arms around Alwey’s torso the moment they had mounted, and she hadn’t even once loosened her grip in the several hours we’d been riding. The way she was pressed up against his back and clinging desperately to him, one might’ve mistaken the pair for a lovey-dovey couple who couldn’t keep their hands off each other—that is, until they noticed the look of deathly, tense concern she had perpetually plastered over her face.

If I were to describe it, it was kind of like the look someone might have when they were struck with a really bad seasickness. It was probably cruel of me, but since Selina’s expressions always looked so cartoonishly over-the-top, I felt the slight urge to laugh whenever I looked over at her.

Alwey had grumbled in the beginning about how, after all these years, she should be ready to ride on her own by now, but once he’d seen that look on her face, he hadn’t said another word on the topic. It was strangely sweet, in a way.

Watching those two got me thinking, though. You know, this situation I’m in is all wrong. Lucia’s a princess, right? As her Chain, I’m basically, like, her knight, sort of. Shouldn’t the knight be up front, as his lady clings to him from behind? That’s how this is supposed to go, right?

You know, if you completely ignore the fact that neither of us fits the roles of stereotypical knight and princess whatsoever.

I was desperate to think about anything aside from my stress, so I closed my eyes and tried to imagine that dumb little scenario in my head.

Pffft… yeah, no. This would never happen. Lucia would never cling to me like that in a thousand years.

Still, the scene was kind of cute to fantasize about. I probably got some kind of dopey grin on my face, and as a result, the reverie was short lived.

“Hehe. Laynie, you’re thinking about something lewd, aren’t you?”

“Ack…” I hadn’t considered the fact that, at the pace we were currently traveling at, we’d be able to hold a conversation. “D-don’t assume that! I’ll have you know, not every male delusion is lewd, alright?”

“Oh? So just most of them are?” Selina was clearly still in bad shape, with her face completely drained of any color, yet she had the audacity to smirk at me, head snugly resting on Alwey’s spine. How she managed to retain her high energy manner of speaking while in this state, I’d never understand.

“Th-that’s right,” I mumbled, realizing a little too late that this defense would most certainly come back to bite me sometime in the future.

Lucia didn’t turn to look at either of us, but she was the first one to deliver a follow-up. “Your replies have merely deflected the original question, Layn. Personally, I find that suspicious.” Her voice sounded like she meant it, too.

I opened my mouth to rebut the unsubstantiated slander they were spewing, when, to my shock, the final voice amongst us decided to enter the conversation. “I warn you, Chain: if you are imagining an immoral scenario involving her highness, I will not hesitate to execute you for your insolence.” His voice sounded even more threatening than usual, as if to substantiate his words.

“H-huh? What the hell? Why is everyone against me?” As seemingly an afterthought, I added, “Oh yeah, and don’t execute me! That’s overreacting!” I didn’t even imagine anything lewd (inherently)!

“Hmm, you still have yet to actually answer the question,” Lucia said with even more incredulity than before. “Alwey, I hereby grant permission to carry out the execution, posthaste.”

“Of course. Right away, your highness.”

For the slightest microsecond, I was actually a little scared for my life.

Oh. They’re messing with me. Duh.

I was so on edge that I somehow took their words seriously at the end. “How did you guys get Alwey to go along with a joke? I’ve never seen him do that before… and it was kind of scary.”

An uncomfortable silence briefly descended upon our party, as if everyone was waiting for someone else to answer, before Selina finally broke it. “Well, it’s been obvious to all of us that you’ve been anxious this whole time, Laynie. Even this dense, old guy could tell.” She aggressively patted Alwey’s torso as she said that part, and he grimaced briefly when she called him ‘dense’ (or, maybe, it was the ‘old’ part that garnered that reaction). “Everyone just wanted to help take your mind off it, I guess.”

I’m that obvious, huh.

“Oh, I look anxious?” I responded to her, skeptically. “Have you seen yourself?”

Selina held out a thumbs-up. “Never felt better!” A moment later, she firmly wrapped that arm back around Alwey.

“Uh, you look like you’re about to die, but whatever.”

Of course, what she’d said about me being anxious was true. In fact, there was a decent chance I looked just as bad as she did right now. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been this stressed.

We were off to my first ‘mission’, if you could call it that. We were answering a call for help, to eradicate a dangerous group of Lishkarn that had advanced well into ‘safe’ territory.

This wouldn’t be anything like I’d faced before, and there could be genuine consequences depending on how things went. Lives would be lost here if we failed; those of innocent people, and even possibly my own. Worst case scenario, should I screw up, Lucia could be hurt, too. That possibility was what terrified me the most.

Just thinking about it made me feel sick, and I had to constantly stifle the urge to vomit. I’d like to tell myself I was simply experiencing whatever illness Selina was, but I knew that wasn’t true.

Stress alone is enough to cripple me this bad? That’s pitiful, isn’t it?

Just then, something lightly struck my forehead.

“Did you just… headbutt me?” It wasn’t hard, but Lucia had leaned backwards and tapped the back of her head against the front of mine.

“I would not use such aggressive language to describe the action, but yes, I suppose I did. Would you have preferred a proper headbutt?” she queried, with a concerningly genuine tone.

“Uh, no. But, like, why’d you do it at all?”

“I had an instinctual feeling you were thinking about something that would irritate me.”

“… How can you always tell?” She hadn’t even been looking at me.

“It might have something to do with the fact that you’re always thinking about something that would irritate me.”

Ah, you know what, that’s probably true. She always got on my case whenever I’d say something self-deprecating, and given I didn’t exactly have the best self-esteem, I’d think about those kinds of things a lot.

I heard Lucia make some kind of sound—a sigh of sorts—and it startled me. For a second, I thought she was seriously about to headbutt me for real. Luckily, she chose to express her thoughts verbally instead.

“Believe in yourself every once a while, alright?” Her tone was kind, as if she was asking for a favor, yet equally stern, as if she was delivering a command. Perhaps it had sounded more serious than she had first intended, because she quickly added in a more playful voice, “You don’t want to keep making me mad, after all. You always say I get scary when I’m angry, so, if you think about it, it would be for your own good, right?”

For as awful as I was feeling in that moment, her words somehow managed to bring the slightest of smiles to my face.

“… Right.”

Believe in myself, huh?
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